It’s a long way from the gilded Teatro Tomás Terry theater in Cienfuegos, Cuba, to the glass and concrete of Puyallup’s Pioneer Park Pavilion.
But on Monday, seven classical musicians from the Orquesta de Cámara Concierto Sur had made the journey and were rehearsing Beethoven with musicians from Tacoma’s Northwest Sinfonietta.
It’s the first time Cuban musicians have played side by side with an American orchestra in the United States since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and it’s the reciprocation of the Sinfonietta’s visit to Cuba in January.
It’s also the start of a cultural festival at two local universities, and proof that music can bridge political and linguistic borders.
“This is a truly historical moment in the relationship between our two nations,” said Sinfonietta director Christophe Chagnard, who will conduct the group’s three concerts this weekend in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup. “This shows that music has the capacity to transcend ideology. ... It’s because of music that they’re here.”
“It’s a great experience being here in the States,” said Emiliya Victorovna Bondarenko, the Russian-born musical director and concertmaster of the Cuban chamber orchestra, which is based at the Teatro Tomás Terry. “It’s a good thing that American and Cuban musicians can get together. We give the Sinfonietta supporters our warmest thanks.”
Monday’s rehearsal was a combination of laughter and hugs, as Tacoma musicians reunited with friends they’d made last January, and sheer hard work practising the fast and furious notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 for the weekend’s concerts.
None of the seven Cuban musicians had ever played the work – it requires many more musicians and instruments than Cienfuegos’ chamber-size group – and the three lilting Spanish dances of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, which will share the program, seemed equally unfamiliar to the 35-member Tacoma orchestra.
The logistics of rehearsing players without much English also was a challenge, said Chagnard, who used mostly Italian musical terminology and singing to communicate directions.
The exchange also took a lot of effort behind the scenes.
Jim Shea, secretary of Tacoma’s Cienfuegos Sister City Committee, had been inspired by the Teatro Tomás Terry during the committee’s first visit 10 years ago. But the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against Cuba until recently prevented this kind of exchange.
However, the committee did connect theater director Miguel Rafael Cañellas Sueiras with Sinfonietta director Neil Birnbaum two years ago and permission for the January’s trip eventually was granted. Sinfonietta musicians and 52 patrons spent 10 days in Cienfuegos and Havana sharing music, visiting schools and museums and building relationships.
It was only the third American orchestral tour to Cuba since the revolution, and the first professional American orchestra to visit Cienfuegos.
Before this month’s Cuban visit was confirmed, it then took another eight months of passport and visa applications via U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair; U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Cuban Cultural Minister Caridad Abreu.
Fund raising by the Sinfonietta to the tune of $38,000 and personal meetings between Birnbaum and the U.S. consulate in Havana also were needed.
The airplane tickets weren’t bought until five weeks ago, and even so one violinist unexpectedly didn’t show up at the airport.
Even getting the parts to the Cuban national anthem, which will be played as well as the U.S. national anthem at each concert, took extra effort.
But the results, say those involved, were worth all the trouble.
“We’re delighted,” said violist Jesús Manuel Carnero de la Teja. “We’ve had a chance to meet the friends we made (last January). The weather is cold here, but we are feeling the warmth of all these people. And we are honored to play Beethoven’s “Ninth.” It’s a very important piece for international understanding.”
Chagnard in fact programmed the symphony long before the exchange was planned, but the piece is appropriate: With its text and themes of brotherhood and joy, it often is played as an international symbol of peace.
The visit goes deeper than just music.
The Cubans will get many chances to share their country’s culture with Northwesterners, and vice versa, at a four-day festival of lectures and music master classes planned at the University of Puget Sound along with free concerts there and at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
They’ll also sightsee in their spare time – they made a first-time snow visit to Mount Rainer last Sunday – play for the Sinfonietta’s fund-raiser gala on Oct. 12 and even do some shopping, thanks to a Sinfonietta donor.
The group then will travel to Tempe, Ariz., to play a similar combined concert.
And in January the Sinfonietta will go back to Cuba for another cultural exchange. Places are open for non-musicians who wish to go along.
“America is a great country, where you always learn something new,” said Sueiras, who visited Tacoma when the sister city committee was formed and who will speak at UPS about the arts, revolution and entrepreneurship in Cuba.
“Cuba is a small country, but our citizens are very sensitive, very feeling. So we can both enrich each other.”
“This is a huge deal,” says Monica DeHart, director of Latin American studies at UPS, who will host a literary lecture by Cienfuegos writer Indira Rodriguez Ruiz.
“Most of our information about Cuba comes through the exile community or activists. It’s rare we get to hear actual voices from Cuba, scholars, to put it in political and cultural perspective. We’re looking forward to it.”
Finally, the tour might have a long-term impact on the classical scene in Cienfuegos.
“We have the idea to make a full Cienfuegos Symphony one day, using students of the conservatory where we teach,” Bondarenko said. “This experience will give us ideas for the future, to make our dream come true.”